The Dismal Science

TV Is Good for You

If you are a woman in rural India, at least.

Actors from the popular Indian soap opera Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi

With perhaps the exception of Homer Simpson, Americans tend to denounce television even as they devour it. Watching TV is implicated in the disengagement of citizens from politics, the promotion of questionable images of women, and the fattening of couch potatoes everywhere. But when it comes to the medium’s treatment of women, television may be getting a bum rap. A new study by Robert Jensen of Brown University and Emily Oster of the University of Chicago shows that television is having a distinctly helpful effect on women, at least in rural India, which admittedly doesn’t have America’s half-century of experience with the medium, or 300 channels to surf through. The words female empowerment and television in the same sentence may bring to mind Star Jones extolling tummy tucks on The View. But for millions of women in developing countries, the benefits of TV may be substantive rather than frothy.

Attitudes about women in rural India remain, shall we say, traditional: Women are expected to cook and clean and to have lots of babies. Surveys from 2001 to 2003 show that rural Indian women don’t have a lot of control over their lives. More than half need permission from their husbands to go shopping. Two-thirds need their husbands’ permission to visit friends. Spousal beating is common and accepted: Sixty-two percent of women believe that it is sometimes acceptable. Thirty-four percent of the women surveyed believed a husband could hit his wife if she neglected the children, while nearly a third believed that showing disrespect and going places without permission warranted a beating. One fifth of women believe husbands are entitled to hit them for cooking a lousy dinner.

The usual avenue for bettering women’s circumstances in the developing world is education. Women with more education have access to better jobs outside the home, better control of their fertility, and better bargaining power with their husbands. Education has other benefits, too, so it’s understandably a big investment priority for most governments. But education changes attitudes slowly. So, how about TV, a quicker fix?

In the last decade, cable television has arrived in remote Indian villages, bringing with it commercial television programming heavy on game shows and Indian soap operas. Before you laugh—a feminist Days of Our Lives?—consider that the most popular Indian series take place in urban settings. Their emancipated female characters are well-educated, work outside the home, control their own money, and have fewer children than rural women. (One of the most popular shows in 2007, called Because a Mother-in-Law Was Once a Daughter-in-Law, Also, describes the life of a wealthy Mumbai family and features plots revolving around family and gender.) So, Jensen and Oster asked, does the arrival of these shows change attitudes in ways that improve women’s lives?

The authors followed women in 2,700 households in villages in four states (Bihar, Goa, Haryana, and Tamil Nadu) and the capital, Delhi, from 2001 to 2003. Access to television in remote Indian villages has changed substantially in the past few years. Of the 180 villages the authors studied, 65 already had cable in 2001, and by the end of 2003, 21 more had access. Not surprisingly, when a village gets access to cable, villagers tend to watch more TV: Forty percent report watching weekly before cable came to town compared with 80 percent after.

What’s the effect? In the places that didn’t get cable by 2003, and in the places that already had it at the beginning of the period studied, attitudes concerning women remained relatively stable. (They were more pro-women in places that already had cable.) But in the 21 villages that got cable between 2001 and 2003, women’s attitudes changed quickly and substantially.

The authors focus on three measures: autonomy (whether the woman gets to make her own decisions about shopping, health, and whom she visits), attitudes toward beating (the number of circumstances in which women view beating as acceptable), and whether women prefer having male children. After a village got cable, women’s preference for male children fell by 12 percentage points. The average number of situations in which women said that wife beating is acceptable fell by about 10 percent. And the authors’ composite autonomy index jumped substantially, by an amount equivalent to the attitude difference associated with 5.5 years of additional education.

So far, these results concern measures of attitude rather than behavior—indicating, perhaps, that TV just teaches women to give the answers that surveying do-gooders want to hear. But the authors also measured the women’s average number of births and the likelihood that their children were enrolled in school. When cable came to town, boys’ rates of school attendance stayed the same, while girls between the ages of 6 and 10 were 8 percent more likely to go to school. The effects on fertility were even more dramatic: For women under the age of 35, average number of births fell annually by more than half. It’s possible, however, that this shows a change in the timing of births rather than overall lifetime fertility, given the study’s relatively short duration.

Jensen and Oster think that TV works its magic on women by providing them a new televised set of peers and in turn changing their attitudes. Supporting this conclusion is evidence that TV’s emancipatory effects were larger in places where women initially held more traditional attitudes. For example, in the places where women had formerly held high preferences for sons, the share preferring sons fell 20 percentage points with the arrival of cable, compared with a 12 percent decline overall.

Americans’ average TV-viewing time of four hours a day may still be too much of a good thing. But the women of rural India, who are just getting started on their favorite cable shows, should perhaps call the TV the Empowerment Box instead of the Idiot Box.